After 26 years, some Kentucky fans had to wonder whether they would see another win over Tennessee in their lifetimes.
UK had managed to lose the annual matchup against the Volunteers every year for over a quarter-century in spite of fielding some of the best teams in school history. The Wildcats had lost games in nearly every conceivable way from blowouts to quadruple overtime affairs, from defensive battles to shootouts.
Kentucky had exhausted nearly every conceivable strategy in trying to end the streak, so it's perfectly and appropriately nonsensical the Cats would finally put an end to it in the most bizarre way imaginable.
"What an amazing game," head coach Joker Phillips said. "(In) the last 26 years, how many quarterbacks have we had, probably 15? Who would pick out Matt Roark as the guy who broke the streak."
With his top two quarterback options in Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton battling injury, Phillips turned to wide receiver Matt Roark under center, who last played the position as a senior in high school. The Wildcats installed an unconventional and highly limited playbook and used a stalwart defensive effort to defeat Tennessee 10-7 in front of 59,855 delirious fans in Commonwealth Stadium.
UK managed just 217 yards of total offense, but the Cats avoided turnovers and stymied a normally potent Volunteer attack. Kentucky had two sacks, two interceptions and held Tennessee to just 4-of-16 on third down conversions, adopting a "refuse to lose" mentality that ultimately made all the difference in a Senior Day win.
"We started a tradition last year where I give all the seniors a chance to stand up and talk to their peers about what Kentucky football has meant to them," Phillips said, "and every one of them talked about everybody in that room as being their brothers. So at the end I asked their brothers are they willing to fight, scratch and claw to give their big brothers the memory of a lifetime?"
The plan to start Roark was hatched on Sunday and Monday and he was finally told he would be the fulltime quarterback on Tuesday. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said there were just 47 plays installed as a part of this week's game plan, very few of which were passes. Roark attempted just six passes throughout the game, completing four for fifteen yards, but the Wildcats were confident all week in spite of knowing how one-dimensionally they would have to play.
"I just had faith in my team," senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "I could see it in everybody's eyes. The seniors wanted to go out with a win and the younger guys wanted to help us leave with a win. We knew we needed to do it. We stepped up and played a great game."
The only achievement that came close to matching the resilience UK demonstrated in pulling off this victory was actually keeping their plan a secret until game time. In a world of tweets, blog posts and Facebook statuses, no one outside of the program knew for certain Roark would play until he trotted onto the field for UK's first drive.
"My teammates knew, and that's who I'm with all the time," Roark said. "We were really excited. I really wanted to tell my family. I know they have a big mouth, and my friends tweet all the time so I didn't want to tell all of them."
During the week, Smith worked hard in the training room in an effort to play, but it became clear that neither he nor Newton would be able to protect themselves on the field enough to allow them to start. Besides, nearly all UK's practice time was spent working with Roark in the run-heavy attack, so the decision was made to go with it. Roark responded with 124 rushing yards on 16 carries and has permanently etched his name into UK lore.
"It feels good," Roark said. "I can't really express it right now. It feels crazy. Once I get out of here I don't know what's going to happen."
Roark is excited about what the win means for his legacy, but is happier for his senior class as a whole. He also wasn't the only Wildcat playing his final game at UK to come up with crucial plays. Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy are the headliners in the class and played predictably well.
Trevathan added to his SEC-leading tackle total with eight more on Saturday, including 1.5 for loss with another two pass breakups to boot. Guy, in spite of playing with an injured shoulder, was all over the field with 14 tackles, two stops for loss and half a sack. Meanwhile, Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley took turns in deflecting passes on Tennessee's last-ditch drive and Taiedo Smith sealed the win with an interception of Tyler Bray.
"I felt like this was the year for us to beat Tennessee," Guy said. "I was making plays, Danny was making plays, Sneed was making plays, (Burden) and Mosley were making plays. All the seniors were making plays. You could see the intensity and the fire and how much we wanted to win."
Phillips was a part of the last senior class to go out with a win over Tennessee. The win means a great deal to him, but he still remembers his win as a player over the Volunteers in 1984 and couldn't be happier Trevathan, Guy, Roark and company now will carry the same kind of memory the rest of their lives.
"I was asked earlier about how much it meant to me to break the streak as the head coach," Phillips said. "It doesn't mean much to me to bread the streak. What means more to me is the joy that those seniors, the memories that those guys will have."